We are richer than I previously realized.
You know how I know?
A dinner plate told me.
Really. A nearly 22-year-old dinner plate assured me of previously unconsidered riches one evening.
Don't worry. It didn't actually speak to me. But its presence communicated a hidden world of wealth to me.
As I hastily (and rarely!--as some might want to clarify in our house) emptied the dishwasher, that modern-day servant of sorts which assist so many of us with our tedious daily chores, it occurred to me afresh that I was re-stocking our kitchen cabinets with plates that had been given to us when we were married over two decades ago.
Suddenly, I was stunned to consider that much of our silverware, coffee mugs, and glasses (even those beveled ones which for some magical reason make the water more pleasant to sip than any straight glass in our cabinet) were gifts.
An Imbecile’s Reckoning
When I was 22, just prior to marriage, I lived with a group of guys in an abode of squalor (from neglect), where the so called “dishes” and an assortment of plastic plates and oddly shaped mugs would be stacked creatively and unattended in the sink waiting for the loser of the unspoken “patience contest.”
The loser was the frustrated soul who could not endure another second of the sink sprawl and the unavailability of even a crummy, yard-sale plastic plate upon which to place a morning Pop-Tart. Exasperated and fed-up, the contest loser would then angrily wash all the “dishes” at the others.
In those days, when decisions were to be made about plates, knives, or crockery with my bride-to-be, I’m embarrassed to remember how aggravatingly pointless it seemed. Why on earth we would spend even a second’s effort contemplating forks or cookware? Or patterns on a plate?
We were on the eve of an exhilarating and substantial tethering, each to the other by vows. Who cared what glass we’d use to gulp our sweet tea at supper?
I thought all these things, because I was an imbecile.
I was preoccupied with the lofty aspects of marriage and not the common ones that actually serve as relational scaffolding for a home worthy of the name.
I wasn’t anticipating how central the dinner table might eventually be to our lives together.
Fortunately though, my wife and I were advantaged in unsuspected ways to have grown up with folks who were willing to part with their money and time to purchase us plates that we’d one day share with guests, family, and happily, our own sons.
My wife knew this would matter.
The prized friends who privileged us with the practicalities of plates knew it too. I was the buffoon dwelling in the dark.
They bought plates I’d never have purchased for us, because it wouldn’t, at that time, have seemed “worth it.”
Not only that, but these generous well-wishers to whom our future and family mattered made sure we had all manner of needful items as we commenced a domestic life together.
A Conspiracy of Love
Of course, that’s because they knew in their bones that a home was an remarkable thing to establish. And that homes, like the marriages and lives which inhabit them, are never best fully furnished without communal support.
And to do a home well, it sure does help to have plates upon which the Lord’s sustenance for the body is placed as your soul is nurtured in conversation at mealtime.
And you need pots for boiling pasta. And pans, muffin tins, and spatulas for preparing those scrumptious after church breakfast-for-lunch bonanzas my wife makes for us each week when I am most wiped out AND famished.
I hadn’t known to anticipate how profound a place those plates, and their friends (like spoons and cups) would play in the making of our lives.
As I ponder, I recollect that other luxuries, which most the folks I know would now consider necessities, like a washer and dryer, which gifted us as well. The washer, astonishingly, still lives and serves us today.
Of course it didn't stop there. We entered the “country of marriage” endowed with completely donated educations, conferred upon us by the sacrifice of parents for whom our well-being and vocational equipping was a central priority.
And when children graced our lives, so too did gifts of miniature clothes and myriad adorable paraphernalia that I’d have never imagined such wonderfully tiny infants would require.
And one autumn, a harrowing sickness struck me. Which means it struck us. My pregnant wife and 4 year-old son endured an apprehensively bleak two months as I’d been relocated to Erlanger Hospital. But friends, church, and family members flanked us all undeservedly with creative and constant props of prayerful and practical aid.
I certainly don't expect that our experience has been replicated for all, but I’d imagine it resonates with some.
Perhaps a consideration of it will, like it has for me, alert you to that notion U.S. Senator Cory Booker says his father has always reminded him about:
"Boy, you need to understand that who you are now, you are the physical manifestation of a conspiracy of love. That people whose names you don't even know, who struggled for you, who fought for you, who sweat for you, who volunteered for you – you are here because of them. Do not forget that."
Most of us with anything like a life worth living, have some “conspiracy of love” striving and fussing in the background, whether noticed or not, which has brought so much of sweetness and savor to our days.
Recognizing this “conspiracy” at back of my own life even slightly, clarifies for me, like it already may have for you, that the most vulnerable folks in our world today are not so merely because they don't have enough money in their bank account, even though their lack is undeniably an often insurmountable problem which creates demoralizing challenges and hardship.
On Being Socially Well-Heeled
It may be that they are in relationship deficit too. A scarcity of social wealth can vandalize and mangle a life.
If you are in a church that is even marginally taking seriously it's calling to be a one-anothering community who bears each other's burdens, then you are socially well-heeled. For there are folks who will offer and “work” contacts for you if you lose a job, and who’ll bother over you if you get sick and need meals brought to you. You’ll suddenly have a home food delivery service from the saints.
And if you fall behind and can't pay your rent or mortgage, it's very likely that the deacons will cover the short-fall with the church’s pooled resources of compassion set aside for just such purposes.
I see folks get home and car repair, babysitting, counseling, encouragement, parenting advice, networking opportunities, meals, rides, and more through their connectedness in the communities of mutual responsibility which we call churches.
Philip Yancey tells of an intriguing insight from anthropologist Margaret Mead who used to ask her audiences at lectures,
“What would you say is the earliest sign of civilization?”
Valiant guesses of “a clay pot” or “tools made of iron” or “the first domesticated plant” would be offered.
But Mead would insist: “Here is my answer,” and hold up a “human femur, the largest bone in the leg, pointing to a thickened area where the bone had healed after a fracture.”
She’d continue with the large bone in her hand,
“Such signs of healing are never found among the remains of the earliest, fiercest societies. In their skeletons we find clues of violence: a rib pierced by an arrow, a skull crushed by a club. But this healed bone shows that someone must have cared for the injured person — hunted on his behalf, brought him food, served him at personal sacrifice.”
Yancey then concludes, “Contrary to nature’s rule of ‘survival of the fittest,’ we humans measure civilization by how we respond to the most vulnerable and the suffering.”
Christians believe that the notion of the sharing economy, where assets are converted to services like Airbnb and Uber are novel in the marketplace but not at all in our communities of faith.
Communities of Mutual Responsibility and Trouble-Sharing
Though we frequently forget, we insist that we’ve been summoned and inhabited by Christ to be communities of mutual-responsibility and trouble-sharing. The troubles of others are to get on us, so they don't stain and injure those who’d otherwise bear the travail alone.
On the heels of MLK Jr. Day it’s worth pondering the privileges (like say, wedding plates and marriage supporting folks who gave them) which pepper our lives. Of course, we may not realize we have such, unless we are with those who don’t.
If we don't have any friends who are orphans, widows, or divorcées, and don’t rub shoulders with the elderly, or those of a different ethnicity or tax bracket than we, we’ll likely fail to appreciate our own privileges or adequately hurt for or walk beside those injuriously deprived of such.
Martin Luther King Jr. famously suggested something to the effect that “oppressors don't generally decide on their own, without demands from the oppressed, to share the privileges that have been entrusted to them.”
But might it be possible for Christians, who come to see what advantages they enjoy while others may not, to take their vocation of trouble-sharing stunningly seriously and to open ourselves up to ways we might share those enriching features of our lives with those who need help to make their life go well?
John Thompson, the legendary and distinguished former coach of the Georgetown Hoyas was purportedly an aggressive negotiator in the days when college coaches were moving from modest to generous salaries as televised games and the lucrative contracts associated with them became more prevalent.
When asked about it, he sagely suggested, “I want my kids to graduate but I wanna be rich. People listen to rich folks. They pray for poor folks.”
I doubt he could have been more accurate.
But it sure would be interesting to see if people of faith---those who, like me, have been given plates and determined help in setting up and supporting a household when they were a mere 22 years old---would ask Christ to make us willing not just to pray for, but to listen to, fuss over, and trouble-share with folks who’ve scarcely had reason to suspect there even were such splendid things as life-enhancing communities underwritten by generous “conspiracies of love."
Contact Eric Youngblood, pastor of Rock Creek Fellowship on Lookout Mountain, at firstname.lastname@example.org